If there's one thing that can be learned from television, it's that there is more than one way to portray a family.
And sometimes, in these television families, the mother is absent.
Single dads aren't rare on TV. Phillip Drummond from Diff'rent Strokes, Russell Lawrence from Gidget, and even Full House's Danny Tanner and Arrested Development's Michael Bluth have been part of the television single-father tradition.
But one of the most famous TV single dads, who appeared on CBS from October of 1960 to April of 1968, was the sheriff of a a small town called Mayberry and still runs in syndication over fifty years after its cancellation.
Widower Andy Taylor and his son, Opie, though they had lost their wife and mother respectively, were not without a mother figure, even before the series began.
The first episode of The Andy Griffith Show had Andy's housekeeper, Rose, moving out to get married and Opie being reluctant to accept a new mother figure into their house and his life.
And the woman that is brought in (brought back in, in Andy's case) into the Taylor boys' lives is Beatrice Taylor, or, as Mayberry and American came to know her, Aunt Bee.
Frances Bavier's Aunt Bee was the never-married sister of Andy's father. Though it's never explored very deeply in the series, it is stated flat out that Bee raised Andy and implied that she had raised a few other Taylors, also, though she never married or had children of her own (another tidbit that is never really explored in the show).
Aunt Bee is a very interesting character to me, especially when considered through the scope of her time and in the context of the modern audiences exposed to the show.
When The Andy Griffith Show first aired in the early sixties, the social stigma for unmarried women and the fact that the Feminist Movement of the 1960s was still in its infancy limited what they could do--working as housekeepers and in other "pink-collar" (or traditionally female) jobs such as teaching and nursing. And a woman never having been married was rare enough (check this pdf if you're interested in detailed 1960s marriage statistics). Even though Aunt Bee was established as an unmarried woman, her romantic life played a fairly large part in her storylines in the show. Though her actual life track is unusual for a woman on television in that time, Aunt Bee is very much like the other television mothers of her time--working inside the home and in the community by way of her church and being responsible for the care and upbringing of a child. The only differences Aunt Bee and mothers like June Cleaver are that Bee isn't married, and she didn't give birth to Opie.
There's something very encouraging, I think, in the fact that even in what was a considerably more conservative time, the idea that there are many different kinds of mothers-- Aunt Bee didn't physically carry or give birth to Opie, but there's no denying that she is a mother to Opie. Today, more people are considering adoption that in the 1960s, and it's interesting to me that, even fifty years ago, there was a postivie role model for people that are parents that didn't give birth themselves.
Though there are many ways in which Aunt Bee is relatable to modern audiences, there are, of course, things about the character that date her. While Bee lives with her nephew Andy during the series and, after Andy marries Helen Crump at the end of the series, with another widowed father, Sam Jones as part of the exposition for the spin-off series, Mayberry, R.F.D, in 2012, more single women are choosing to live alone than ever before. And, while Aunt Bee worked mostly in the home (though later in the series she did open a restaurant and record a cooking show), more women are working outside the home now than then, juggling work and parenthood.
Mayberry may have been a simpler time and place on the whole, and The Andy Griffith Show certainly portrayed more conservative values than many television shows today, it's interesting to see the modern thinking that got slipped into the narrative by way of Aunt Bee's unique representation of motherhood.
In the coming weeks, we'll start taking a look at single mothers and blended families with Brett Butler's Grace Under Fire and one of television's most famous mother, Florence Henderson's Carol Brady.